A Polynesian Feast!

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Robert Wetzel

Regular readers will already know that I am a big fan of the Disney organization – excepting, of course, some of the crashing excesses of the Marvel Studios division.  While some may criticize the marketing engine that is Disney Animation Studios, I choose to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of that group in creating beautiful, exhilarating, family oriented film entertainment that send everyone but the worst Scrooge out of the theater with a swelling heart and a song on the lips.  And more recently, DAS has been one of the strongest proponents of female empowerment in all of film, animated or otherwise.  With it’s latest release, ‘Moana’, Disney Animation offers up another feast for all of the senses.

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Set in the South Pacific, and based around traditional stories from Polynesian mythology, ‘Moana’ tells the story of the title character, a young princess (duh: it’s a Disney film, after all!) who must strike out on her own, face both mortal and immortal obstacles, and both partner with and confront the gods to save her civilization from impending devastation.  Yes, you have heard this story before, in many forms and with many combinations of princesses, gods and cultures.  That is beside the point: every myth, whether Greek, Roman, Norse, African, Mayan, Hindu or American –just to mention a few – is a version of the same plot line.  It is the telling of the story that makes the difference.  And ‘Moana’ is a very compelling telling of the tale.

What makes ‘Moana’ so compelling is the way the various components of storytelling are woven into such a beautiful a tapestry of sight and sound.  Using the flora and fauna of Polynesia as a palette, the animators have simultaneously built two-dimensional and three-dimensional worlds.  We can view the characters in their daily life, while also seeing them in a flatter, comic book-style version of themselves and their actions.  As such, we engage with the characters as both real and mythological.  This is particularly effective in an on-going ‘schtick’ in which the demigod Maui interacts directly with his many tattoos – a tableau of art imitating life.  These ‘special effects’ of the animators’ art are so beautifully rendered that the audience is drawn into the film as if it were live action, without ever sacrificing the interest of the animation.

In addition, the animators demonstrate a skill that few of their peers have mastered, rendering people as both cartoon and human; plants and animals as real and imagined; and, particularly, the water that plays such an important role in the film, as both realistic, but also with a life of its own.  Disney Animation has raised the form to new heights, and ‘Moana’ is worth seeing just to enjoy the beauty of the art.

But this would not be a Disney film without a rousing musical score and several songs that will soon replace ‘Let It Go’ in your head and on your radio.  Capitalizing on the extraordinary talent and popularity of Lin-Manual Miranda (‘Hamilton’), the film features original songs by Miranda, scored by Mark Mancina and sung by a stellar cast of largely Polynesian actors, including newcomer Auli’i Cravalho.  As Moana, Cravalho has a lovely and powerful voice perfectly suited to Miranda’s songs.  An unlikely musical find is Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who voices the demigod Maui.  Johnson’s has always done comedy well, but here he finds a real voice that is not overwhelmed by his hulking physical presence, as in live action films.  Of course, Maui is a hulk.  But Johnson’s fast paced repartee, good humor and excellent voice give him more character than he has ever displayed in films.

‘Moana’ does hit a few clunkers along the way.  The constant presence of Moana’s idiot rooster sidekick does absolutely nothing for the film; in fact, it is a distraction and an irritation – stupidity in the midst of intelligence.  And the lava god who Moana must defeat is so two-dimensional when set against the other characters as to seem completely out of place.   But these are nitpicks in a film filled with joy, adventure and accomplishment.

‘Moana’ is my strong recommendation for a family film outing.  But even for date night, an afternoon playing hooky, or a get-away from the constant onslaught of football, ‘Moana’ will reward you in many ways. 


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